Nutrition: Baobab

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 9:49am

Move over goji and acai, the fruit of the African baobab (or monkey bread) tree is the latest superfruit star. If you are looking to keep your weight in check and have radiant skin, this could be the one for you.

Richer in antioxidants than both acai and goji berries, it is said to contain six times more vitamin C than oranges, twice as much calcium as milk, is richer in potassium than bananas and contains more magnesium than spinach. Baobab fruit is also rich in B vitamins and iron, and provides a good source of carbohydrates and dietary fibre.

For thousands of years, people in Africa have used the versatile baobab tree for food, medicine, water and shelter. The fruit is sweet, tangy and has a pear-like flavour that's enjoyed on its own or used as an ingredient, the leaves are eaten as a vegetable, and the seeds can be eaten raw, roasted, or ground to make an edible oil and thickener for soups and stews.

Now, it is becoming a popular ingredient in smoothies and cereal bars, and is also available in powdered and capsule form.

According to a 2008 report by the US National Research Council, the fruit of the baobab tree contains a sticky pulp that can be dried into a nutritious powder high in protein, vitamins, and minerals. The powder is stirred into warm water or milk to create a healthy drink, and also beaten and dried into thin pancakes for use months or even years later, aiding food security.

Baobabs have become known outside of Africa in recent years. In 2009, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the use of baobab in foods and drinks, and the dried fruit powder was assigned "generally regarded as safe" status.

Baobabs are thought to be some of the oldest trees on the planet - between several hundred and several thousand years old. But because they do not have tree rings (or growth rings) in their trunks, it's hard to tell.

Baobabs are virtually indestructible life savers in the desert regions they inhabit. They can reach 30 metres tall and are completely hollow inside. The trunks, which are up to 20 metres in circumference, can hold hundreds of litres of water to withstand the harsh drought conditions. During the rainy season, villagers often store up water in there for later use.

Baobabs provide shelter and have been used as dwelling places. During the late 19th century in Derby, Western Australia, a baobab tree was used as a temporary prison. This tree still stands and is a popular tourist attraction.

Although baobabs have a history of traditional use as a medicine, very little research has been carried out on their medicinal properties. However, the tree's rich nutritional profile is likely be responsible for its health-giving properties.

A study published in 2006 in the journal Food Chemistry by Italian researchers found that baobab pulp was 66 times higher in antioxidants than orange pulp.

Other studies suggest that baobab pulp has anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects, due to the presence of triterpenes and sterols, both natural steroids that manage inflammation.

Baobab has also shown to be useful in treating dysentery and infant diarrhoea. Naturally occurring compounds in the plant called tannins are said to have an astringent effect on the bowel and reduce symptoms of diarrhoea.

Because it is so rich in essential nutrients and very low in fat, baobab is often marketed as a weight loss aid. Its soluble fibres are said to have prebiotic properties, meaning it encourages the colonisation of healthy bacteria in the gut. This enhances the immune system and may help to treat digestive problems such as Candida albicans (an overgrowth of yeast in the gut).

The fruits and leaves are traditionally used to treat asthma and allergic skin conditions because of the antihistamine properties. The leaves and bark are boiled and used to treat fevers and kidney problems.

There have not been any reported side effects from using baobab, and it is not thought to interact with any medicines.

Baobab oil, extracted from the seeds, is also gaining popularity in the cosmetics industry. It is easily absorbed into the skin and is rich in the antioxidant vitamins E and A, which may help to fight the signs of ageing. It has moisturising and soothing properties, and, being rich in omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids, may help treat skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis. It can also be used as a deep conditioning treatment for the hair and scalp.

Some claim that it can help to regenerate skin cells, and recommend it for burns and other wounds to provide soothing relief and help reduce scarring.